Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20
TUESDAY 18 APRIL 2000
20. Let us look at Canada now, and specifically
the Commissioner for the Department for Sustainable Development's
role. When it was set up in 1994 the recommendation was that the
Commissioner should be entirely independent of Government and
separate from the Auditor General, but they actually ended up
with a bit of a fudge where he reports to Parliament and the Auditor
General's staff. Is that working, is that a weakened version of
what should have happened or what?
(Ms Hollingsworth) When I was in Canada I certainly
found that it was perceived initially that it was a fudge and
that it was a lesser model than having a completely separate environmental
auditor. I spoke to the Environmental Auditor and government departments
and so on, and everybody seemed to be of the opinion that it actually
had not made much of a difference. The Commissioner could still
be exercising an independent role and still doing as good a job
as he would have done in an office separate from the Auditor General,
but then there were some benefits from actually being in the Auditor
General's office. For example, the Auditor General's office is
considered with high esteem and so it kind of benefited from that.
The high respect which the Auditor General has, the infrastructure,
was already there and if there were any overlaps in their work
it could be dealt with very easily and informally because they
were in the same office. So there have actually been some benefits
and probably not too many down-sides to that.
21. He has more clout because he is acting on
the authority of the Auditor General?
(Ms Hollingsworth) I think that is right to some degree.
22. How has he interpreted his remit on sustainable
(Ms Hollingsworth) I think they seem to focus on the
environmental side as opposed to the social side in particular.
Within the office structure itself, certainly when I was over
there, the Commissioner's team was made up of the team that had
previously audited Environment Canadawhich is the Department
of Environment equivalentand Natural Resources Canada,
so he has taken on the teams within the Auditor General's office
who had a prime responsibility for those departments who had the
greatest impact on the environment, and he also set up a sustainable
development team who looked specifically at audit and sustainable
development strategies, which I think is one of the important
things with the Canadian model. When the Auditor General Act was
amended to create the Commissioner it required all category one
federal departments to produce a sustainable development strategy.
One of the important tasks of the Commissioner is to monitor and
audit those strategies and look at whether they are complying
with the targets set in the strategies and so on. So he has that
role, and then he also has a role in environmental audits in which
he will choose a subject like toxic substancesthat is one
thing that he has looked atand look at that whole area
across Government. The Department of Agriculture might be involved,
and the Department of Health, so it is going to be a more cross-cutting
issue. Then he will have what he calls a capacity-building role
where he will look at working with departments to improve green
environmental accounting and so on.
(Ms Ross-Robertson) Looking at federal provincial
(Ms Hollingsworth) That is the one. So he has that
work with departments. As well as going in and auditing them,
he has got much more of a relationship with helping them develop
best practice as well.
23. So it is not limited to implementation of
policies as some of the other committees are, but he is looking
at policy-making as it is happening, before it is implemented.
How is it a preventative role as well as a monitoring auditing
role when it is actually happening?
(Ms Hollingsworth) I know that some of the people
I spoke to over there did say that that was the difference between
the Auditor General and the Commissioner; that the Commissioner
did not just come in at the end and say, "You should have
done this, you should have done that", but will work with
them more closely. At the same time, though, you have to recognise
that the Commissioner is independent, and must be independent,
so that very clearly he could not provide an advisory service.
It is about developing best practice. So it is not saying to specific
departments, "You must do this, you must do that", because
then when he comes in and does an audit later it questions his
own independence. It is more about developing best practice, but
he cannot and does not question policy, in the same way that the
NAO will not question policy.
24. How does that actually manifest itself in
practice? The Education Department is drawing up plans for various
types of school. How would they interact with the Commissioner's
role at the outset? You say he does not have an advisory role.
Can they say to him, "Look, this is what we're planning on
doing; how does that fit in with your environmental benchmarking?"
Again, you would say that you would not really give him a role,
because he would have to write his audit report later?
(Ms Hollingsworth) I think that would be the case.
25. So what will he say early on?
(Ms Hollingsworth) He will not have departments come
to him and say, "How should we do X, Y and Z." What
he will say is, "I'm going to look at environmental accounting,
for example, and here is best practice", working with the
departments, saying, "What do you do at the moment? What
is done in the private sector?" and so on. I think that is
what he would do, rather than it being an individual advisory
role on specific issues, because that would compromise him.
26. So he would have set down some codes of
conduct for the Education Department in this case to follow when
they are developing their schools policy, so that when they implement
their schools policy and he audits it he can say, "Hold on,
actually that's out of kilter with these general principles that
I've set down at the outset", or what? I am trying to get
clear exactly what he can do, rather than being this looming figure
at the outset who might come down upon you with a ton of bricks
later on; further upstream I want to get the details of his role.
(Ms Ross-Robertson) Keep in mind that he is also reviewing
strategy. They have submitted these forward-looking documents,
so by auditing the forward-looking documents you are actually
then influencing the policy within the department. Does that help
27. I am just trying to see how it really works.
(Ms Ross-Robertson) It is not a sustainable development
unit. You cannot compare them to the Sustainable Development Unit.
You cannot compare them to the Round Table for Sustainable Development,
for example. They are not advisory in that specific sense. That,
I think, is something that we need to retain, because obviously
government departments need that sort of advice desperately, and
that is quite important.
28. Let us come on to the relationship with
the federal departments. One of the criticisms which I think we
would certainly agree with in one of your reports is the weaknesses
of our auditing role, simply because we have not had a material
audit because of the problems of departments providing it. There
was a requirement, with the establishment of the Canadian Environmental
Auditor, for federal governments to produce something for him
actually to auditsustainable development strategies. Is
there a national sustainable development or environmental strategy
in Canada, and does the Commissioner report on this?
(Ms Ross-Robertson) There was. I assume he has reported
(Ms Hollingsworth) I do not know, actually.
(Ms Ross-Robertson) Canada's Green Plan, I think it
(Ms Hollingsworth) I do not know.
(Ms Ross-Robertson) I do not know what it is calledgreen
something. I had a copy of it in my office. It existed before
the Commissioner, from what I remember. I do not know whether
he has audited it. I have not actually looked at the Canadian
system to the same degree as Kathryn has done.
(Ms Hollingsworth) I do not know.
(Ms Ross-Robertson) What I can say is that in his
most recent annual report the Commissioner found these strategies
that the departments have had to create under the Auditor General
Act to be lacking and their progress towards the targets that
they have set in those strategies to be lacking. So just because
you have a statutory requirement for this lofty environmental
strategy, or whatever it is, does not necessarily mean you are
going to improve the amount of information actually available.
Therefore, if we are going to go down that route, we want to be
specific and we want to make sure that there is sufficient guidance
and format, if you like, and the capacity for the departments
to provide that information, because again the statutory requirement
on its own may not be enough.
29. I think we would very much agree with that.
There is perhaps a tendency to feel that once you have environmental
policy, with a nice glossy brochure to promote it, that is the
end of it, and it is not, because it is just the start of it.
The Commissioneragain, this is something we would identify
with herehas described some of the departmental reports
as "variable in quality". When we did an audit across
all the departments of government, with little ticks in boxes,
there were several departments with very few ticks and one or
two with several more. Is the guidance on improving these part
of your criticism which you have put in your paper that audit
constructs its own context?
(Ms Hollingsworth) That can be a problem. I think
that in Canada that was certainly the case. There is a Guide for
Green Government which is published by the Government for the
departments to take into account in their strategies and so on.
The Commissioner used that as a basis on which to evaluate the
strategies. I did come across criticisms that this creates a kind
of checklist, as I was saying earlier. Some departmentsfor
example, the Ministry of Defencemight have looked as though
they did very well because they put their strategy in on time,
they did X and they did Y, but they do not actually integrate
environmental issues into their policies. So the strategy might
look very good, but actually what they are doing is not. At the
same time I think that at least it is a start, at least it is
getting them to think about these things. You might not want to
choose to have a checklist type of thing that the Commissioner
30. So they put a tick in the box because their
brochure was printed on recycled paper, rather than because they
are encouraging environmental concerns in their defence contracts?
(Ms Hollingsworth) Yes.
31. How do you rate the existing auditing process
in terms of improving the quality of information and the amount
of information coming through? How successful has it been?
(Ms Hollingsworth) In Canada?
32. Yes, in Canada.
(Ms Hollingsworth) I think the Commissioner sees the
important thing as being sustainable development and the requirement
on departments to produce the sustainable development strategies.
The environmental audits that he is carrying out are probably
not that dissimilar to what was going on before, which would be
what the Auditor General would have been able to have undertaken.
I think it is still important that by having a separate environmental
auditor you are increasing the profile of environmental audit.
Here in the United Kingdom you could have an environmental auditor
doing the type of audit which the NAO and the C&AG probably
could undertake under the effectiveness remit of value for money,
but I do not think that goes far enough, it does not really put
a duty on departments to take into account environment in their
spending. Having an environmental auditor would increase the profile
of Environmental Audit definitely, and it would also be very clear
that the Environmental Auditor should report to this Committee
rather than to the Public Accounts Committee. The PAC would be
reluctant to relinquish its role from the audit, and you would
increase the amount of information coming through.
33. Finally, the so called 4th E. The Auditor
General has a duty to take the environment into account in addition
to the economy, efficiency and the effectiveness of the Es. Has
this duty been implemented by the whole of the Auditors General's
office across the whole of government, or only by the Commissioner's
(Ms Hollingsworth) I think primarily in terms of the
structure and the way that the Commissioner is operating, he has
got the unit who are responsible for "Environment Canada"
and "Natural Resources Canada". What he tends to do
is choose a subject, like toxic substances, and see where that
leads him, and look at the different departments. In terms of
the staff that remain under the Auditor General's remit, when
I was there, which was two years ago now, they were not so much
concerned with the environment, but I think there was a feeling
within the office that they were hoping that by working together
more they would start to consider the environment in their normal
everyday VFM reports as well as having these specific environmental
reports. I think that is very important too, because then it is
much more integrated into all of the spending, rather than just
being about specific environmental subjects.
(Ms Ross-Robertson) Certainly the Assistant Auditor
Generals do appear before the Environment Committee in Canada,
and it is not as if the NAO in the UK does not do environmental
audits. They have looked at environmentally sensitive areas, to
give one example, so it would not be beyond the scope of anyone's
imagination. Again, the document Wiring Up seems to say
that that should happen anyway. I think it is actually a real
sense of progress if we can get the 4th E because it brings in
sustainable development, that is what it is all about, the 4 Es,
to a large extent. If we can do that and audit Government on that
basis then that should carry the integration process a lot further
(Ms Hollingsworth) The NAO provides reports which
can be used by any Committee, but the PAC is the primary audience
and it would want to remain so. That is why if you have an environmental
auditor doing this, even within the NAO, then at least if that
auditor was established by statute you could create a role within
the statute for this Committee which would protect the Committee
from being abolished without proper scrutiny for one thing, but
also it would be clear then that this was the proper audience
for those reports and not the PAC which has not got the expertise
or the time remits to do it anyway.
34. Can I turn to the relationship between the
Commissioner and Parliament? Can you tell us a bit more about
the process by which his work is considered by both the Environment
Committee, to which he reports, and by Parliament as a whole?
Does the Canadian Committee, for instance, examine ministers?
Can you sketch in a bit of background about how that relationship
(Ms Hollingsworth) The Commissioner for the Environment
and Sustainable Development is limited to reporting once a year.
So, unlike where the NAO here can issue reports throughout the
year to be considered, the Commissioner can only report once a
year, so that report will go to Parliament and to the Committee.
The witnesses are deputy ministers, which I think are civil servants,
and they are the equivalent of the permanent secretary. It is
then scrutinised and the Commissioner will appear alongside and
be questioned at the time, at the same hearing as the deputy minister.
Some people that I spoke to thought that was useful because it
enables them to address the points raised by deputy ministers
and stops them trying to fudge things and they can come back and
say this, that or the other.
35. They can set one off against the other.
(Ms Hollingsworth) There is a possible potential of
its being adversarial, whereas here we would be looking at the
C&AG as a model to audit, he goes to PAC hearings but is not
there as a witness and is not there to answer questions.
36. Does the Canadian Committee, like us, cover
a wide range of departments? Can they summon ministers from anywhere?
(Ms Hollingsworth) They combine the departmentally
related Committee, so being responsible for Environment Canada
and some other agency type bodies, with their role as the audience
for the Commissioner's reports. I am not entirely certain, but
I am assuming that they can call people from other departments
in that role.
37. Does the federal government publish a response
to a Committee report?
(Ms Hollingsworth) I do not know.
38. Here, as you know, we have a system by which
we produce our report and then the Government produces a response
(Ms Hollingsworth) Yes.
39. The Committee to which the Commissioner
reports, as you rightly say, is the Environmental Committee. To
what extent does the workload of that Committee reduce the Commissioner's
impact in taking the sustainability agenda forward?
(Ms Hollingsworth) I do not think it is the Committee
that limits him, I think it is the fact that by statute he can
only report annually. I think that is the real limitation.